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The Little-Known Truth About Colds vs. the Flu

cold or flu
“Mommy, I don’t feel good!” my daughter announced as soon as I woke her. “My nose is runny. I want to stay home.”

I felt her forehead. No fever. I was faced with the all-too-common parenting dilemma: was she sick enough to stay home? Was it the flu or just a cold?

I wish I had a maternal instinct that could reliably tell me just how sick my kid really is. But the truth is, even doctors often can’t tell the difference between a cold and the flu, especially in the early stages. “The bottom line is, it just doesn’t matter,” according to Dr. Gregory Germaine, Associate Chair of Children’s Services at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital. “Influenza can be totally asymptomatic in some kids, and in others the flu causes mild cold symptoms and passes like a simple head cold.” At the same time, the flu is far from benign — it kills around 35,000 Americans every year. What’s more, the “simple” cold isn’t always so simple — it can require hospitalization for young infants or immuno-compromised children.

True, it’s possible to test and find out what viral or bacterial strain is causing that runny nose, but most of the time, it’s not necessary. Most doctors only test if an illness is serious, to make sure there isn’t a secondary infection or other condition. “Testing is done enough that we have a general idea of what pathogens are hitting the are at any particular time,” says Germaine. Flu and rhinovirus (the “common cold”) are the most common culprits, but it could also be adenovirus, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) or HMV (human metapneumovirus).

With so many possible causes for a simple runny nose, you might feel that it’s important to know exactly which one is causing your child’s sickness. But the truth is, the treatment is the same for all of them. “Almost all treatment of viral infection is symptomatic,” says Germaine. “That means we don’t change the course of illness, we just keep our kids comfortable while we wait for the infection to pass.”

What symptoms will you be treating? Whether your child has a cold or the flu, the list of possible symptoms is identical: runny nose, sore throat, cough, body aches, headache, fever, stomach upset, and fatigue. The only difference between cold and flu is severity: on average, worse symptoms are caused by the flu, and with the flu, complications are much more likely.

The bottom line? It’s okay not to know. If you’re worried, any kind of virus can warrant a call to the doctor. But as long as your child seems to be handling it well and not developing complications, both a cold and the flu just call for a week of ibuprofen, bed rest, and chicken soup.

 
Photo: Getty